Advocates for the families of 173 people murdered in the banana-growing regions of Colombia filed suit today against Chiquita Brands International, in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. The families allege that Chiquita paid millions of dollars, and tried to ship thousands of machine guns to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC. The AUC is a violent, right-wing paramilitary organization supported by the Colombian army. In 2001, the Bush Administration classified the AUC as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Its units are often described as “death squads.”
According to family representatives, the AUC was used to assassinate their husbands, wives and children, who were apparently interfering with Chiquita’s financial interests. In the last ten years, more than ten thousand people have been murdered by the AUC, many of them in the banana zones where Chiquita financed the AUC’s operations.
“This is a landmark case, maybe the biggest terrorism case in history,” said Terry Collingsworth, who directs the litigation. “In terms of casualties, it’s the size of three World Trade Center attacks.” Collingsworth is already known in Colombia for his lawsuits against Coca Cola, Drummond, and Nestle for the targeted killings of union leaders by the AUC.
The case began with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which filed criminal charges in March of this year. Chiquita not only admitted the truth of the charges, but agreed to cooperate in the DOJ’s ongoing investigation. Although Chiquita got off with a slap on the wrist—a $25 million dollar fine and no jail time for executives—their admissions set the stage for a multi-billion dollar lawsuit. It could be the biggest wrongful death case in U.S. history, eventually involving thousands of victims.
“Chiquita’s victims are living in dire poverty,” said Paul Wolf, co-counsel in the case. Wolf spent the month of May speaking to victims’ groups in shanty towns where families seek refuge from the death squads, which continue to murder anyone perceived as an enemy. “Reparations can’t bring back the dead, but there are a lot of widows and orphans with no means of support. Most of them have fled their homes, and don’t know where their next meal will come from,” observed Wolf.
As word of the lawsuit spreads, the number of families joining it has skyrocketed. “Putting Chiquita on trial for hundreds, or even thousands of murders could put them out of business. I guess this is the one scenario where I would support the death penalty—the death of a truly evil corporation,” said Collingsworth, remarking on Chiquita’s hundred year history in Colombia. For most of that time, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company. (Lawyers for Chiquita Victims, June 7)